America Enters the Space Age
January 31, 1958
America entered the Space Age on January 31, 1958, with the launch of Explorer I, the first American satellite to successfully orbit the Earth. Coming three months after the successful launch of Sputnik I by the Soviet Union, Explorer I represented the highlight of America's participation in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a comprehensive series of global geophysical activities.
The Academy's Role in the U.S. Satellite Initiative
The U.S. satellite effort started under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences. At an October 1954 meeting of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) the U.S. National Committee for the IGY, working under the Academy's sponsorship, recommended that the United States institute a scientific satellite program as part of its overall IGY program. Academy President Detlev Bronk, along with National Science Foundation Director Alan Waterman, took the satellite proposal to the federal government. It was approved, and in July 1955, the Eisenhower administration announced the U.S. goal of orbiting an artificial Earth satellite during the IGY.
Shortly after the announcement, the Academy created the Technical Panel on the Earth Satellite Program. Its mission was to oversee the scientific aspects of the satellite project, as well as those aspects concerning public information and institutional relations. In practical terms, the Academy's oversight meant that the Technical Panel would determine which experiments would be flown aboard the satellites.
A Successful Launch!
With the highly publicized failure of Vanguard on December 6, 1957, the Jupiter-C rocket was quickly modified to carry the Explorer I satellite. Explorer I was launched at 10:48 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on January 31, 1958, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and the news of the successful launch was announced a few hours later at a press conference in the National Academy of Sciences' Great Hall.
Photo: William H. Pickering of the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory, James Van Allen of the University of Iowa, and Wernher von Braun of the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency, holding a model of Explorer I in the Academy's Great Hall, celebrate a successful launch. (Credit: AP/Wide World)
Explorer I is credited with having made the most significant discovery of the International Geophysical Year—the existence of radiation belts surrounding the Earth, named the Van Allen Belts for Academy member James Van Allen, who identified them. Explorer I was only the first of a series of satellites launched as part of the U.S. IGY Earth Satellite Program. With the October 3, 1959 launch of Explorer VII, the program came to an end, but by that time the Space Age was well under way—guided by the Academy's pivotal role in one of the most important scientific initiatives of the 20th century.
- Explorer I Web Site - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
- William H. Pickering - Member Profile
- James Van Allen - Member Profile
- Wernher von Braun - Memorial Tribute, National Academy of Engineering